Peter Brock
Peter Brock
11/2/20 10:50 a.m.

What makes an automobile an icon of its era? To be universally recognized as exceptional, it must have that indefinable combination of design, engineering and sheer presence that we feel simply as admiration. 

There’s also the matter of quantity. Wide availability can make certain designs instantly recognizable and influential. On the other hand, even great cars can be bogged down by high production numbers; after all, dismissing the ordinary is a common mistake of collective wisdom. 

And what about the very limited-production icons? Many of them were able to gain fame and acceptance because of their celebrated performance on the racing circuits of the world. Certain cars, like the legendary Ferrari 250 GTO or Daytona Cobra Coupe, were produced in such small quantities that even if you have the millions necessary to acquire one, you may have to wait years to make the purchase. 

These cars fall into a special category of rareness: They’re so valuable that they’re seldom driven for the pure sensual pleasure of experiencing the unique characteristics that made them so successful. In this sense, scarcity itself is part of their allure. They are unobtainable art, outside the realm of what most of us could ever own and enjoy.

To qualify on my personal list of the 21 “most,” a car must be beautiful, desirable, exciting or even cool, but it should also have been important enough to set new standards or somehow change history. For this reason, each of my picks has a total production of at least 3000 units. 

Anything less, and the car becomes too out of reach for those of us who simply want a great driver. Fortunately, that means every car listed here can be acquired for a relatively reasonable sum. Healthy quantities and availability have kept the prices within reason. 

Age is also an important factor. While some great cars were produced in the right quantities before World War II, they are still very difficult to track down. Sure, thousands—even millions—of Fiat Topolinos, Citroën 2CVs and early VW Beetles were made, and time has proven that they were three of the greatest examples of revolutionary engineering from Italy, France and Germany. However, no matter how special they were for their time, their availability today is virtually nonexistent. So for this list, we’ll stick loosely to the past 60 years. Let’s say 1950 through 2009.

There’s simply no comparison of “best” with these cars, so this is a list of the “most.” Each of these machines is special in its own unique way, and each will evoke a variety of feelings depending on our preferences for style or engineering excellence.

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